Health Benefits and Risks of Coffee

What the Current Scientific Evidence Tells Us

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To many of us, coffee is a staple of our daily diet. We use it to help perk ourselves up, to socialize, and to cap a satisfying meal. As much as science may tell us that is alternately "good" and "bad" for us, the facts often do little to change our daily habits.

There are times, however, when the habit may cause us concern, usually when someone tells us that we are "drinking too much." Is there such a thing?

And where exactly is the point where benefits of coffee suddenly become harmful?

Coffee Nutrition Value

Determining whether coffee is healthy or not depends largely on how you interpret the word "healthy." If your aim is to enjoy a satisfying drink that is low in calories, carbohydrate, and fat, then a plain black cup of coffee certainly fits the bill. 

Nutrition is an entirely different matter. From this standpoint. here is how one 8-ounce cup of coffee breaks down:

Coffee Nutrition Facts 
Serving Size 1 Cup (270 g)
Per Serving% Daily Value*
Calories 1 
Calories from Fat 0 
Total Fat 0g0%
Saturated Fat 0g0%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0g 
Monounsaturated Fat 0g 
Cholesterol 0mg0%
Sodium 6mg0%
Potassium 132.15mg4%
Carbohydrates 0g0%
Dietary Fiber 0g0%
Sugars 0g 
Protein 0.3g 
Calcium 0%

*Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

Coffee only becomes a dietary concern when you start adding ingredients such as milk, flavorings, syrups, sugar, and whipped cream.

By this point, a single coffee drink can pack as many calories and fat as an extra-large slice of cake.

Consider that one 16-ounce Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino drink weighs in at no less than 430 calories with 12 grams of saturated fat and 72 grams of net cars. That one drink is equal in nutritional value to 18 Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies.

While this may suggest that a plain cup of coffee without milk or other add-ins is good for you, it is really only "good" in that it doesn't add any calories. Besides delivering a trace amount of potassium, coffee has no real nutritional value. 

Benefits of Coffee

Irrespective of the nutritional benefits, coffee is a stimulant known to improve mental clarity and alertness when used in moderation. Recent research suggests that the benefits may extend well beyond our mental health to our physical health and wellness as well.

According to a 2017 review of studies published in the British Medical Journal, coffee consumption was associated more with health benefits than harm. Roasted coffee is a complex mixture of over 1,000 bioactive compounds, some of which have potentially therapeutic antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, or anti-cancer effects.

Among their findings, the researchers determined that drinking three to four cups of coffee per day:

  • Reduced the risk of liver cirrhosis by 39 percent
  • Lowered the risk of metabolic syndrome by 9 percent
  • Lowered the overall incidence of cancer by 18 percent (most specifically prostate cancer,  endometrial cancer, melanoma, oral cancer, leukemia, non-melanoma skin cancer, and liver cancer)

Moreover, regular coffee consumption was associated with a decreased risk of depression and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer disease. By contrast, decaffeinated coffee was seen to reduce the risk of Parkinson disease irrespective of all other contributing factors.

Risks of Coffee

Despite what appears to be a plethora of health benefits, coffee can exert negative effects in some people.

According to the same study, the risk of bone fracture increases significantly with every cup of coffee an older woman drinks. By comparison, the risk in older men appears to decrease. This undermines some of the early evidence suggesting that coffee was inherently beneficial to osteoporosis, a condition which affects women more than men.

There is also consistent evidence that coffee may increase the risk of fetal harm during pregnancy. Compared to pregnant women who drank no coffee, those who drank more than six cups per day were at an increased risk of pregnancy loss, preterm birth, or low birth weight.

Similarly, high coffee consumption was linked to an increased risk of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Dark-roasted, cold-brewed coffee appears to have the least effect.

Unfiltered coffee, meanwhile, was seen to increase total cholesterol levels as well as triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Using coffee filters may help decrease this risk.

From an even broader standpoint, coffee contains caffeine, a powerful stimulant which can trigger adverse symptoms if overused. By and large, people who drink more than six cups per day are at an increased risk of:

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Stomach upset
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Diarrhea

While some heavy coffee drinkers will experience fewer symptoms over time, most will suffer episodic or chronic bouts.

A Word From Verywell

Moderation is the key to enjoying the benefits and avoiding the risks of coffee. If you are a heavy coffee drinker, consider replacing one or two cups a day with either a decaffeinated brew or, better yet, plain water. While it may take some time to overcome your dependence, the withdrawal symptoms tend to be short-lasting and resolve within the course of a few weeks.

If you enjoy a flavored coffee drink every now and then but are struggling with your weight, be sure to check the nutrition information before placing your order with the barista. Go for the non-fat, unsweetened option and add just enough sugar or artificial sweetener to suit your palate. 

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